It’s a new literary agency with a difference: to seek out the next Marie Kondo for today’s reader, Netflix viewer and podcast fan. Julie Vuong meets founder Rachel Mills to talk about life running a start-up and spotting the publishing trends before they happen
To sum up her business philosophy, Rachel Mills refers to a line in one of her author’s proposals: "Be cool, be kind, be you." To follow these principles more closely, Mills moved away from big agency life to start her own company in January this year. Her CV, which namechecks PFD and Furniss Lawton, is now top-lined with Rachel Mills Literary Ltd (RML), the embodiment of her motto with a firm focus on building a books list that help us better understand the world.
"My literary agency is about positive change, whether that’s mental health, feminism or global issues," Mills says. "About 30 clients came with me from Furniss Lawton including Marianne Power, author of Help Me! [Picador], a bestseller in countries such as Italy and Canada, and Catherine Gray [Octopus], whose Unexpected Joy series is a huge hit. The books are at the heart of it, but with every author we look at how we can expand.
"It hasn’t always been the case that there were so many TV and podcast channels after content. It’s quite new that we can add that to an author’s career."
"When I submitted Bosh! five years ago, the common response from publishers was that veganism was not a big enough trend"
RML is built to take in the wider picture. Mills believes publishing, and lifestyle publishing in particular, is fast changing thanks to the new ways in which we consume information and entertainment. "Lots of my clients make money from public speaking; it’s a big market. During Mental Health Awareness Week last month every company in the City seemed to be looking for a speaker. And now TV production companies are seeking out positive, transformational shows in the wake of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and Queer Eye. It used to be fiction - and still is - but the likes of Netflix are looking for new ideas and that’s good for my clients. I could see all this happening and I thought: this is a good time to launch my agency."
When the moment is ripe
One of the key challenges for Mills is timings. “When I submitted Bosh! five years ago, the common response from publishers was that veganism was not a big enough trend. I think we can see now that it is. My job is to work out the best moment to get publishers on board."
According to Mills, what’s the next big thing? "I’m so excited about Dr Dani Gordon, who is the world’s leading expert on medical cannabis and CBD oil. It’s just been legalised in the UK. GPs are not usually trained in this area and Dr Gordon, alongside the government, is looking to change all that. I know this is a massive trend but I wonder if publishers will think so!"
Wellness is the way forward
RML is part of a significant growth in publishing wellbeing books. "We can see that in the last 5-10 years new imprints have sprung up in order to publish this genre," Mills says. "There’s Pan Macmillan’s Bluebird, Hodder’s Yellow Kite, Hachette’s Octopus and Anima from Head of Zeus, among others. People are citing lots of different reasons for this: it’s partly wellbeing, partly wellness and partly self-help. In the 80s and 90s self-help books were about getting rich or getting thin, while now it’s much more nuanced and largely about happiness. People are much more open now and it’s acceptable to read a book publicly about self-help."
As more social media stars turn authors in this genre, Mills warns that followers don’t necessarily translate into readers. "There’s an element of Instagram leading the way in beautifully designed books and topics on self-care. But we have to be careful. At the beginning we all got very excited about big social media talent, believing their books would definitely sell, and they didn’t always. Passing the time on Instagram is free, so will people really part with their money? Is someone taking lovely pictures of their home guaranteed to translate into a book? Perhaps, but that book needs to say something. That’s a challenge; I’d say that’s a fun challenge for me!"
From working as a one-man band, Mills accepted that to expand meant investing in staff and opening up to outside interests. Last week it was announced that Tricycle Talent, a collective specialising in books, music, digital, voices, film and television, had taken a minority stake in RML. "At first I wanted to stay small with a small community of authors," she says. "But after the London Book Fair I had a chance to reflect and I accepted I was losing out on amazing opportunities, because the business was growing more quickly than I had imagined. That’s why I did the deal with Tricycle Talent."
As a result, RML is moving to new offices in Shoreditch, launching a podcast and expanding its connections into industries outside publishing, particularly screen. "Tricycle has given us a good reach into media production," she says. "Founder Sara Curran has been in the business for 25 years and is married to Peter Sussman, who’s behind shows like CSI. The way it works is RML and Tricycle act as investors in each other. That means I have shares in all the other business within Tricycle’s 'hub'. If one of these companies wanted to develop a client of mine for TV, that would be mutually beneficial. I’ve never heard of a company set up like this before, and it’s very attractive to smaller start-ups. Tricycle is not governed by private equity where returns have to be really fast, which is hard in publishing, or about buying up a company and existing as one homogenous brand."
Within RML, Alexandra Cliff joins in July from PFD as foreign rights director. "We’re talking to other agencies to put their rights through RML, and Alexandra will be managing and building up the international side of the business." As for key titles, next year will see follow ups from Professor David Nutt and Catherine Gray, and the much-anticipated book from Andria Zafirakou, the winner of 2018’s Global Teacher Prize. "I’ve just read the first draft and it’s going to be a real conversation starter!" Mills beams.